UK election: A campaign driven by fear, not hope
In the final days, Labour is rising in the polls but the Conservatives enjoy a 10-point lead
British prime minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson has maintained his personal lead over Corbyn, who remains unpopular, particularly among older voters in the midlands and the north of England. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Giant fans were blowing powerful gusts of warm air into the Custard Factory in the former loading docks of the old Bird’s Custard factory in Birmingham, now reborn as the city’s “creative and digital hub”. The hot air drove the Labour activists forward towards the stage, where a large window and open doors kept the temperature icy.
“It’s freezing so I’m keeping my coat on,” shadow education secretary Angela Rayner told the crowd. “But don’t worry, its lovely and warm in socialism and we’ve only got seven days before Jeremy Corbyn is prime minister.”
A natural political star, Rayner is smart, sharp and quick on her feet and she radiates the optimism Labour’s foot soldiers need at this stage in the campaign. Local celebrity Jamelia and education union leaders joined Rayner onstage to remind the activists what they were fighting for, detailing the impact of spending cuts on children and pointing out that every one of Birmingham’s schools is receiving less funding today than in 2015.
“What we require from poor children is that they should be extraordinary. But they can’t all be like Angela,” the National Education Union’s Kevin Courtney said.
Rayner left school with no qualifications at 16 after she became pregnant and later studied part-time to become a social care worker. An MP since 2015, she is on the soft left of the party but has been loyal to Corbyn since he became leader, backing him in 2016 when he was challenged by Owen Smith.
With polls pointing to a Labour defeat next week and canvassers hearing complaints about Corbyn’s leadership, many within the party say privately that he should have stepped aside before the election for a younger, more dynamic figure such as Rayner or shadow employment secretary Laura Pidcock. Any such misgivings were put aside at the Custard Factory when Corbyn took the stage and part of the crowd took up the almost forgotten chant of “O Jeremy Corbyn” that followed him everywhere in 2017.
“In the last week of this election campaign when everything will be thrown at us by those who are rich and powerful, we’re going to be out there in every street, every town, every city with our message. A message of hope, a message of inclusion, a message of a society that is based on the needs of all of us and social justice for all. We will not walk by on the other side of those who are going through hell and personal problems, homelessness and poverty,” he said.
“When Labour wins, the nurse wins, the street sweeper wins, the factory worker wins, the teacher wins, all those who yearn for a society that supports us all, they all win.”
Both main parties are haunted by the memory of the 2017 campaign, with the Conservatives fearing that history could repeat itself and Labour hoping that it will. Two years ago, Labour’s rise in the polls was driven by its popular manifesto and an increase in Corbyn’s personal ratings.
Labour has risen steadily in the polls throughout this campaign but the Conservatives still enjoy a lead of about 10 points in an average of polls, a gap that should be enough to give them a majority. Unlike Theresa May, Boris Johnson has maintained his personal lead over Corbyn, who remains stubbornly unpopular, particularly among older voters in the midlands and the north of England.
Rob Skinner (32), who has been campaigning for Labour in marginal seats around Birmingham, acknowledges that the leadership is an issue for some voters. “It does come up. When that happens, you ask them why. There’s not often a very reasoned response. It’s just ‘oh I don’t really like him’. And then you talk about policies and you ask them what matters to them. That can be effective,” he said.
The other problem for Labour in its old industrial heartlands is its policy on Brexit, which is to negotiate a new deal based on a close relationship with the EU and put that to a referendum with the alternative of remaining in the EU.
“I predominantly do canvassing in the marginals around the Black Country and those sort of areas, which are heavy Leave areas,” says Joe Ward (28).
“There’s something of a cut-through with this idea that the Tories are trying to expel everyone from their party who has a view contrary to the leadership, whereas Labour is trying to bring people together and balance them. People tend to be receptive to this but obviously some people aren’t. It’s a difficult case to make and it’s certainly not something that comes to them prior to coming to the door but it’s one you can make when you get to the door.”
In the south London district of Streatham a day earlier, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson arrived at the Knights Youth Centre to be met by a swarm of Extinction Rebellion activists dressed as bumble bees. One protester glued his hand to the windscreen of Swinson’s electric bus while others danced and buzzed around wearing slogans such as “Give us a future we can bee-lieve in”.
Extinction Rebellion believe that representative democracy has shown itself to be unable to address the climate emergency and they want a citizens’ assembly to be empowered to take action.
“I lost faith in parliamentary democracy when your party promised to abolish tuition fees and went into government and raised them,” one protester told Swinson.
Inside the youth centre, things get worse as one young person after another confronts Swinson over her party’s record in coalition with the Conservatives and her own record in voting for austerity measures that saw youth centres shut down across the country.
Johnson’s Conservatives have almost nothing to say beyond promising to `get Brexit done'
“I’m not going to stand here and defend everything that happened,” Swinson says, her stock response to all such questions before she pivots into talking about her party’s plans to reverse the cuts she voted for.
The Liberal Democrats have had a woeful campaign. They initially expected to double or triple their seats at Westminster, but they could return with fewer than the 20 MPs they left with. The party structured much of the campaign around Swinson herself but the public did not warm to her, and she apparently underestimated some voters’ reluctance to forgive the Liberal Democrats for their broken promises in government and their responsibility for underfunding public services.
While Labour and the Liberal Democrats pepper the public with new policies every day, Johnson’s Conservatives have almost nothing to say beyond promising to “get Brexit done”. Johnson has successfully portrayed himself as leading a new government rather than seeking a fourth term for the unpopular Conservatives.
The party’s strategy is to limit its losses to the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats in the south of England and to gain seats from Labour in parts of England that voted Leave in 2016.
Former Conservative MP Robert Hayward, who is now in the House of Lords, has been one of his party’s most successful election analysts since the early 1990s, predicting almost every election, including the EU referendum in 2016, correctly. He is not ready to predict the outcome of next week’s vote but if the election was held today, he would expect a Conservative majority.
“It would be a comfortable majority but not a massive one – 20 to 40, something like that. They will do least well in London and in Scotland. In Wales I don’t think they’ll make a lot of progress. But the decline of the Lib Dems, the continued weakness of the Lib Dems, has eased the pressure off seats in London and the Home Counties, which they may have feared they were going to lose. And all the indications are at the moment that they will do better in the midlands and even better than that in the north,” he says.
The loathing of Corbyn is quite incredible
The Conservatives went into the election expecting to lose almost all their 13 seats in Scotland but are now confident of holding most of them. Hayward expects the Liberal Democrats to capture Cheltenham and St Albans from the Tories but believes they are at risk of losing Brecon and Radnorshire, which they won in a byelection last August.
Hayward is cautious about the number of seats the Conservatives can take from Labour in the so-called Red Wall in the midlands and the north of England. But a net gain of 20 above the 317 Theresa May won in 2017 would give the party a working majority of about 30.
“The loathing of Corbyn is quite incredible. There’s a strong dislike for Boris in the south of England and in London but the loathing of Corbyn in traditional Labour territory, which is shifting anyway and has been for years, those are the two main things. That and the credibility of the Labour campaign has been a very marked issue. If you start saying where we’re going to do this every time something comes up, you’re spending billions. Nobody believes it,” he says.
“Each day seems to go past with either things on anti-Semitism or alternatively on financing of their proposals. The Labour Party has risen and continues to rise and it’s important to bear that in mind. It continues to rise because, just as Conservatives who were angry when not confronted by a ballot paper have now moved back to the Tories, the people who are diehard Labour people who, let’s say, four weeks ago said they can’t vote Labour are actually doing so.”
Hayward admits that he missed the surge in support for Labour among young voters in 2017 but he is sceptical about the party’s chances of increasing its share of that vote.
“I think the answer is probably not. Because I think Remain in university places might switch slightly from Labour to the Lib Dems but it won’t have that much effect. I thought it might early on. Now I don’t think it’ll make that much difference,” he says.
“The youth vote is concentrated in the universities and in the cities where people in their early 20s migrate. Most of those are already Labour held. There will clearly be a constituency or two where the majority is 20 or 30 or 50 or 100, where that extra youth registration will have an impact but you can’t guess which they are.”
Back in the Custard Factory in Birmingham, Skinner remains optimistic that Labour can deprive Johnson of a majority next week. He warns against underestimating voters’ willingness to vote tactically and to put aside their misgivings about Corbyn to prevent the Conservatives from returning to office. And he believes young people will be driven to the polls not by hope but by fear.
“They are scared of a Johnson government. They are scared of a Conservative government. If they’re 18 or 19 now, all they’ve known is Conservative governments,” he said.
“I grew up in the Blair years so I can remember something better. But there’s a real fear and horror that this is who we are as a country and this is what we’re going to continue to be. It’s the fear that this is not ever going to change.”